Friday, March 20, 2009

The Twilight Sad. Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters (Fat Cat, 2007)

"I'm 14, and you know/ That I've learned the easy way/ Some stupid decisions/ And with it a broken heart."

Much of Scotland is rocky, windy, overcast, and damp, and these environmental aspects often find themselves reflected in the music the country exports. Bands like the Arab Strap, Mogwai, and the Jesus and Mary Chain tend to revel in Hibernian gloom, while even the sunnier, more pop-oriented acts -- the Vaselines, Belle & Sebastian, Orange Juice, Franz Ferdinand -- can't entirely mask an underlying sense of sadness and regret, flirting frequently with the darker aspects of the human condition, touched by a northern chill that settles in the bones and seemingly can't be shook.

It's in the tension between ear-catching tunefulness and tear-jerking sentiment that so much of Scottish rock and pop excels, nailing the sweet-n-sour essence of popular music. Glasgow's The Twilight Sad, telegraphing their approach nicely with their band name, are a solid entry in the Scottish musical canon, rocking with the monolithic intensity of Mogwai (shimmering walls of distortion, thundering drums) and emoting with the mumbly, down-in-the-mouth charisma of Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat or B&S's Stuart Murdoch. The quartet specializes in a multilayered, high-volume, paint-peeling ruckus grounded in undeniably catchy melodies, sung by vocalist James Graham in a heartrending burr. The combination is winning, and the overall effect is achingly wistful and alarmingly bracing.

2007's Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is The Twilight Sad's debut, an accomplished chronicle of adolescent longing and early teenage angst. These songs lay bare the cluelessness and anxiety of childhood and its immediate successor, using blasts of droning noise and steady, sometimes plodding pacing to spell out the emotional shifts and brooding intensity common to the age. In these nine songs can be found all that's awesome, exciting, and devastating about growing up and realizing your place in this world, as the scales of youthful innocence fall from the eyes and the cynicism of adulthood starts to take root. It's a story old as aging itself, but rarely has it sounded so good on tape.

"Cold Days From the Birdhouse" opens the album on bended strings and gently hammered piano keys, drifting through curtains of subdued dissonance and building momentum gently, gently, until the 2:28 mark, at which point the droning and slamming kick in. "And your red sky at night won't follow me/ It won't follow me now," declares Graham as the rest of the band (Andy MacFarlane on guitar, Craig Orzel on bass, and Mark Devine on drums) whips up an appealingly dynamic sonic tantrum. "Where are your manners?" Graham demands. Where indeed?

Cold Days From The Birdhouse - The Twilight Sad

The steady, almost martial syncopation of "That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy" propels the tune to thrilling heights, as accordions and glockenspiels throw their weight behind the bass and guitar to thicken the sound. The point at which Graham exclaims, "Kids are on fire in the basement," and the band explodes into flames behind him is worth the price of the album alone (and certainly makes the track worth downloading, it goes without saying).

That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy - The Twilight Sad

"Walking For Two Hours" starts off blistering and rarely lets up, bouncing patiently and alternating between plaintive lament and bitter rage. The rolling onslaught of "Talking With Fireworks" is one of the LP's mightiest offerings, pulling melodies out of the lion's mouth; "Mapped By What Surrounded Them" features one of Graham's more appealing vocal performances: as he sings, "And these walls are filled with blame," the music cuts with a savagely serrated edge, feedback sanding down the rough edges to make rougher edges, anger and resentment crashing through in cathartic waves.

The Twilight Sad continue in the fine Scottish tradition of taking rock 'n' roll fun dead serious. These four boys know their effects pedals and their overdrive knobs, and they sure as sunrise know their moping. If I had first heard these dudes when I was 16, they would have been at the top of my maladjusted, woe-is-me, teenage mess playlist. As it happens, I first heard these guys when I was 31, and they still managed to make me mad at my parents. And tha isnae bad.